Planning, flexibility required to get best holiday travel deals

For many Southern Nevadans, shopping for an airline ticket for the Thanksgiving/Christmas/New Year’s holidays is as traditional an end-of-year ritual as shopping for Christmas presents.

But when some of those holiday travelers-to-be search for tickets this year, they’re likely to find fares higher than last year and, in at least some cases, fewer flights to choose from

In fact, it’s already "pretty late" to start seeking out a good deal, noted Maria Lilibeth Ruiz, director of marketing for Prestige Travel American Express.

That doesn’t mean good prices — and deals on holiday vacation getaways — aren’t available. "My advice is to start checking and make (reservations), particularly if specific dates and destinations are in mind," Ruiz said.

Jennifer Gaines, contributing editor for Travelocity ( said the online travel site doesn’t have solid data on prospects for Christmas and New Year’s air fares. But, she continued, domestic air fares for travel over the Thanksgiving holiday are expected to be about 10 percent higher this year than last.

"Looking nationwide, travelers are expected to pay about $384 on average for a domestic round-trip ticket," Gaines said.

Meanwhile, according to Gaines, Las Vegans who are leaving town over the Thanksgiving holiday can expect to pay an average of $356 for a domestic round-trip ticket this year, compared to about $300 last year.

Travelers should keep in mind that 2009 wasn’t a good year for the airline industry, Gaines noted, "so a rise in air fares for the remainder of this year really is to be expected."

In fact, air fares throughout 2010 have been higher than they were the previous year, Gaines added.

The increase primarily is because of basic supply and demand, Gaines said. "More people are traveling and demand for travel is up, so, naturally, air fares are going to go up."

While some travelers may find reduced choice in flights, Las Vegas-based Allegiant Air plans to add flights. Spokeswoman Sabrina LoPiccolo said the company will add holiday flights from Dec. 21 through Jan. 4 "in response to high demand."

Allegiant’s primary efforts are on bringing to Las Vegas vacationers from other, often smaller, markets it serves across the country. However, the additional flights also may make it more convenient for Southern Nevadans making holiday trips back home to those same markets.

Whenever the trip and wherever the destination, Ruiz recommended holiday travelers purchase tickets as soon as possible. "There are some (fares) available, and there are some fairly good prices," she said. "But, again, do it now."

Holiday travelers who haven’t boarded a plane since last year’s holiday season also may notice a few other changes this year. For example, airlines that last year allowed one checked bag free may charge this year. In-flight snacks that were free a year ago now may cost a few bucks. And, this year’s traveler may find airlines enforcing fees for overweight checked bags.

A $25 fee for each checked bag can add up, particularly for a family. "Travelers definitely need to keep in mind the total cost of their travels," Gaines said.

Meanwhile, it appears many travelers will gather with other family members on a cruise ship or at a resort to celebrate the holidays.

"We always have a percentage (of clients) going home to visit the family," Ruiz explained. But meeting other family members at a neutral vacation spot for the holidays "definitely is a trend that’s growing."

During a Christmas cruise with her family a few years ago, "I never saw so many family reunions," Ruiz recalled.

"Everything on the ship they have beautifully decorated for the Christmas holidays. They even bring in Santa, and they had a kind of simulated snow," she added.

Cruises are particularly tempting for this niche of holiday new traditionalists, both because the nearly all-inclusive price includes such items as meals, and because ships offer activities "for every age group," Ruiz said.

Resorts and cruise lines are courting this growing niche of travelers with some attractive deals, Ruiz noted.

For example, "a lot of hotels … are offering a third or fourth night free when you stay a minimum stay in their hotels," she said. "So that’s good, but you just have to have a little flexibility."

And, for cruise fans, "we’ve seen prices that are very reasonable and a good value," Ruiz said, including, for example, a seven-night Mexican cruise departing on Nov. 20, with an ocean-view cabin, for $699 per person, versus "closer to $900 in the past."

Similarly, Ruiz said, another potential deal is a Caribbean cruise from New Orleans over Christmas, again with an ocean-view cabin, for $749 per person, versus typically "closer to over $1,000."

But, as with booking a holiday flight, moving sooner rather than later is key. So is flexibility, a travel virtue any time of the year but particularly useful during the busy holiday travel season, Ruiz said.

Gaines agreed that being flexible — with both travel dates and, if possible, destinations — can save travelers a significant chunk of money. A Travelocity analysis of Thanksgiving fares revealed that a traveler with flexible dates "can find a ticket that was cheaper than what even last year’s average fares were."

According to Gaines, a Thanksgiving air traveler this year can save as much as $170 for a round-trip ticket "just by adjusting their itinerary by a couple of days to avoid those peak travel days.

"Especially around Thanksgiving, that Tuesday and Wednesday before Thanksgiving and then that Sunday and Monday after Thanksgiving are going to be peak travel days, when you see higher fares."

Gaines added that Travelocity’s website offers a flexible date search tool, by which a traveler can enter "a range of dates, and our system will pull up the cheapest fare for you."

For holiday travelers considering a cruise or beach trip this year, Gaines suggested thinking in terms of themes rather than of specific destinations. For example, "if you want a beach getaway, search southern Florida and search Miami-Fort Lauderdale, but also search San Diego and Los Angeles and Mexico."

Another tip: Booking a flight and a hotel at the same time almost always saves money, Gaines said. That "can save up to $525 (per couple) just by booking the flight and hotel. So that’s a great way to save."

Contact reporter John Przybys at jprzybys@ or 702-383-0280.

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